As a graduate of the St. John’s College Great Books Program entering the Eastern Classics Graduate Program, one of my first impressions of the Eastern texts — actually, not an impression of them as texts at all, but as objects – is how much harder many of them are to find. Surely in the Western Program, too, there are hard-to-find and out-of-print books, and rumors of books that Johnnies alone keep barely in-print. I’ve heard we constitute a double-digit percentage of all sales of Newton’s Principia Mathematica, maybe a quarter or a third or even half of all sales of Ptolemy’s Almagest and Apollonius’ Conics. It is alleged that one of the books of the Conics was without an English translation until only a few years ago because it wasn’t read in St. John’s mathematics tutorial, and nobody else had ever bothered. I don’t know if these claims are true, or who even could verify or refute such trivia, but they don’t sound terribly improbable to me. These books are the exceptions, though, and — as these particular examples illustrate — generally old mathematical or scientific treatises. There is no shortage of English editions of Plato, or of Kant, or of Tolstoy, or. . . .
It was surprising to me that the first seminar reading in the EC program is available only in one expensive and hard-to-find volume (or a photocopy from that volume, available in the college bookstore), and that the second is a printout from online sources (translated in the 1890s). I supposed this must be peculiar to the first few readings, but as I went down the seminar reading list for the first semester, I found many books that exist in only one English translation, or maybe one Victorian and one more modern translation, sometimes printed most recently thirty or forty years ago. This isn’t true of Confucius, of course, or of the Tao Te Ching, or of many of the others you’ve probably heard of, but it was surprising anyway.
So I was especially pleased — beyond the natural enthusiasm of a beginning student of Sanskrit — to learn of the project of the Clay Sanskrit Library. These little books will be familiar to anyone who’s studied Classics, as they are consciously modeled on the Loeb Classical Library, even down to being named after the benefactor whose patronage got them started. Like the Loebs, the Clays are nearly pocket-sized; and like the Loebs, the original (Sanskrit) text is on each left-side page, with the corresponding English facing it on the right. To the Loeb’s green (Greek) and red (Latin) cloth-bound covers, the Clay adds teal.
The Loebs have a head-start of nearly a hundred years, so the Clays are still comparatively few. There are advantages to their late start, however: all volumes are being composed digitally (and, web geeks, in semantic XML), and soon will be indexed, cross-referenced, and fully searchable in Sanskrit and English on their website. Excerpts can be downloaded in PDF. Their future is allegedly uncertain, but I’m rooting for them — I hope, at least, that they make it long enough to print all their 32 (!) volumes of the Mahabharata.
The New Republic printed something of a review of the series last month, and I would suggest to all of my friends interested in great literature to take a look. The author advocates well:
Sanskrit literature, taken as a whole, is–it seems almost ridiculous to have to say this–a surpassing cultural achievement, like ancient Greek literature (though the Sanskrit corpus is, at a conservative estimate, a thousand times larger than what has survived in Greek), and like the literary monuments in classical Chinese or classical Arabic, to say nothing of comparatively young literatures such as we find in English, German, French, or Russian. The astonishing fact is that cultivated readers of the latter tongues may have never heard of Kalidasa, or of the no less important Bhavabhuti, Bharavi, Magha, and Sriharsha.
Happily, help has now arrived.
And there’s sure to be something in the bargain for you, as the article quotes quite a few lines of wise and lovely verse. An example:
An arrow shot by an archer
or a poem made by a poet
should cut through your heart,
jolting the head.
If it doesn’t, it’s no arrow,
it’s no poem.